For college freshman, those first few weeks, even the first few months, the freedom of being on your own for the first time can be exhilarating. But all that freedom can be overwhelming for some students, giving way to anxiety and stress. And weight gain.
A 2015 study that looked at freshmen in college from 2010, 2011 and 2012 saw an average of more than six pounds of weight gain in men and more than four pounds in women over the first year of school, with the majority of the increase taking place in the first semester.
“I think entering into college is a vulnerable time, just like any transition,” said Ashley Barrient, a bariatric dietitian at Northwestern Medicine’s Digestive Health Center.
The stress, combined with dining halls that offer unlimited helpings of food, late-night pizza runs and access to alcohol, can definitely increase students’ calorie intake, Barrient said. We are less mindful about our health, she said, because “the focus is on the transition.”
Students arriving at school might be used to a house full of groceries, regular home-cooked meals and even portions doled out by parents. “[At school] It’s not proportioned, it’s not laid out,” said Lara Field, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant. “We can go up to the buffet and get unlimited ice cream.”
Eating more food prepared in a commercial kitchen — whether that is on campus or in a restaurant — can often mean more salt and fat than what would be in the food we prepare at home. That exposure could start a weight-gain cycle, according to recent research from Cornell University.
The study, which looked at the taste responses of Cornell students over the course of the academic year, showed that weight gain in male students was associated with a decrease in their sensitivity to taste as a whole. Women’s ability to taste was less affected by the weight gain, but both men and women experienced a decrease in sensitivity to salt.
“We think it’s sort of a positive feedback loop,” said Robin Dando, an assistant professor in Cornell’s Department of Food Science who worked on the study. “If you lose sensitivity to taste, maybe you need to eat more intensely tasting food or more food to get the same positive feeling from it,” Dando said. “The ones that made the less healthy decisions were the ones that started to see some changes in their tastes.”
Besides the often less-than-desirable campus dining, college is also known for its abundance of alcohol, which can have a triple effect when it comes to your health, the dietitians said. In addition to the pure calories of the alcohol and the mixers themselves (which can be a fast way to consume hundreds of calories), alcohol lowers your inhibitions and can lead to late-night eating that rarely has any nutritional value or need, Field said.
And the cherry on top is that alcohol often cuts into sleep quality, which after time can impact weight management, Barrient said. “It’s kind of trifecta,” she said. Social events that focus on eating and drinking and the peer pressure they bring can also be a factor, the experts said. Barrient encourages her clients to focus their energy on the socializing to help keep their eating and drinking moderate. “Sip slowly and really engage in the conversations with people,” she said.
All the activity of college can make it hard to get enough exercise, which some kids might have had built into their schedules in high school in the form of sports practice, Field said. The practices, games, weekend tournaments and conditioning that many kids participate in in high school just evaporate when they get to college unless they’re on a varsity sport. Students have to choose to make physical activity a priority, Field said.
Both Field and Barrient said that eating and exercise habits people pick up as college students can really carry forward into their adult lives, everything from learning how to put together a healthy plate to fitting exercise into a busy week to practicing moderation.
College students aren’t going to always choose the best path, Field said, as so much of that time in their lives is about exploration and learning what is best. But there is room in there to make healthy choices that will impact your life after college. “I do think it’s a really good time to practice how we are going to be successful,” she said.
Worried about staying healthy in college? The experts gave us some tips on how freshmen (and upperclassmen) can keep their health in mind as they explore all that college life has to offer and how parents can ensure their kids stay healthy in the dorms.
Take a nutrition class: Most campuses offer some courses on nutrition, Barrient says. Take a class as an elective, and even if it isn’t part of your major you’ll gain knowledge that you can use for life.
Hit the salad bar: Work on filling half of your dinner plate with veggies at the dining hall, Field said. The fiber will help you feel full and keep you from loading up on fries or other snack foods.
Take workout study breaks: Step away from your work to get a little exercise at the gym, Field said. It will give your brain a break while helping you to stay active. Join an intramural sports team: If you played a sport in high school, join the intramural team, Barrient says. It’s a good way to stay active while meeting people.
Learn some simple cooking skills: There’s no substitute for home-cooked meals, so parents should make sure their kids have some basic cooking skills before they leave, Barrient said.
Drink water: Don’t just stick to coffee, diet sodas and alcohol, Field said. Make sure you stay hydrated by keeping track of what you are drinking.
Keep healthy food on hand in the dorm room: Grocery shop for healthy stuff you can eat in your dorm room, Field said. Look for healthy frozen meal options at the store for study sessions when you won’t have time to get to the dining hall, Barrient adds.
Pay attention to what you are eating: If you had fries at the last meal, pick a salad, Field said. Don’t forget what you ate earlier in the day and try to find balance.
While college weight gain gets a lot of the attention, restrictive diets and disordered eating behavior is also a problem at this transitional time, Barrient said. Some students might feel pressure from peer groups or media to reach an unhealthy low weight, she said.
“It is important to address that eating balanced meals rich in lean protein and low fat dairy, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains is an important part of fueling our minds, maintaining a healthy, stable mood, and maintaining a healthy body weight,” she said.
Diana Novak Jones is a local freelance writer.